Law enforcement agencies in the Netherlands and Belgium have announced joint operations between Argus and A-Limit targeting Sky ECC, which has provided an encrypted messaging platform to criminal groups around the world.
Sky ECC worked in the same way as the infamous Encrochat, which we talked about earlier. Let me remind you that Encrochat phones guaranteed their users absolute anonymity, since they did not have a device or SIM card tied to a client’s account and were purchased under conditions that guarantee the impossibility of tracing their origin.
Sky ECC operators followed the same pattern, making physical changes to their phones (for example, removing microphones and getting rid of GPS functionality), and installing their own encrypted messaging apps on the devices.
The company’s customers could use the Sky ECC application on their own devices running Android, BlackBerry and iOS, or they could purchase already modified and protected devices. In addition to the above modifications, the devices were equipped with an alarm button, with which it was possible to quickly erase all data in the event of an emergency or arrest. Renting such a gadget cost from 800 to 2200 euros for six months.
The platform’s sales representatives around the world sold these devices on behalf of the main company. The clients were usually serious criminal groups, including drug and arms dealers.
It must be said that the above-mentioned Encrochat was by no means a unique example of an encrypted communication service popular in a criminal environment. Back in 2016, the Dutch police shut down another similar service, Ennetcom, which modified BlackBerry smartphones for the needs of criminals. Another striking example is Phantom Secure, which has been selling secure phones to drug cartels for many years, and whose head was eventually sentenced to 9 years in prison in 2019.
“There are about 171,000 SKY ECC telephones in operation all over the world. They are mainly found in Europe, North America, some countries in Central and Latin America (Colombia) and the Middle East. Every month, about 70,000 of these phones are actively communicating through the SKY ECC network, the police write, adding that about a quarter of the platform’s active users are located in Belgium (6,000) and the Netherlands (11,000). – Given that the services provided by the company seem almost exclusively criminal, at the end of 2018 the federal prosecutor’s office [Бельгии] decided to launch an investigation against SKY ECC and the people who supply these phones to the criminal community. “
The authorities say they managed to infiltrate the platform in mid-February 2021 and intercepted many messages exchanged between criminals through the company’s servers. How exactly this was implemented has not yet been reported, only it is noted that “cooperation with the Netherlands helped”. But, according to the data Belgian media, we are talking about thousands of intercepted messages that were read by police officers in real time. Although it looks like the operation was even more ambitious:
“In total, we have intercepted about a billion encrypted messages, almost half of which have been decrypted to date,” – reads a statement from the Belgian police… Investigators add that they read the decrypted messages in real time for about three weeks.
When the problems first started, Sky ECC representatives claimedthat someone had created a fake version of their communications app, downloaded it onto phones that were unsafe for customers, and then sold those devices through “unauthorized channels.”
Essentially, the company told reporters that “not a single authorized Sky ECC device has been compromised,” and law enforcement or someone else has been advertising and selling phones with fake phishing apps on board. It looks like law enforcement officers infiltrated Sky ECC through these compromised devices and watched the criminals for a while, eventually allowing them to make the now reported arrests.
The police say they used their access to the platform to collect information from Sky ECC customers to prevent violent crimes, including kidnapping, murder and shootings.
In the Netherlands, law enforcement officers raided 75 homes and offices and made 30 arrests. In Belgium, more than 1,500 police officers conducted 200 home searches and arrested 48 suspects.
In total, about $ 1.2 million were seized during the operation, 15 prohibited weapons (including six firearms), eight expensive cars, three money counting machines, police uniforms and GPS trackers.
It is emphasized that the seized funds were obtained from drug trafficking. The fact is that according to local media reports, most of the suspects were arrested in the area of the port city of Antwerp, which has long been considered the gateway for drug trafficking to and from Europe. Thus, the investigation into Sky ECC began after a container with 2.8 tons of cocaine was confiscated in Antwerp and the company’s phones were found from the arrested suspects.
Sky ECC officials “strongly reject any claim that Sky ECC is the ‘platform of choice for criminals'” and continue assertthat law enforcement agencies did not hack their platform, but some kind of cloned system created by unauthorized persons. In fact, the company accuses the authorities of trademark infringement, lying, defamation and fraud.